Friday, February 12, 2016

Save or Suck doesn't actually Suck

It's possible I'm not using save-or-suck the same way other people do. What I mean here is game effects where, if you fail a roll (usually one, maybe two or three), you suffer from results that make your character unable to act effectively. These may be severely reduced effectiveness, or total inability to act, or similar effects.

This is a post that's been stewing around in my head, especially when I'm working on monsters or traps or spells with potentially fight-ending resisted powers. It's not a specific criticism of anybody, just a thought about the concept itself and my perspective on it.

Does Save or Suck really suck?

In other words, if you get nailed with something that makes your character less effective, useless, or otherwise out of the fight, is that a bad thing?

I think it is not.

Realistically - by which I mean in meta-game-around-the-table reality, not reality-reality - almost all save-or-suck results are better than actually suffering traumatic damage.

Temporary paralysis?

Knocked out without long-term brain injury?

Afraid and have to run away?


Pretty much, you've been rendered combat ineffective. That does, indeed, suck.

But the alternative is potential death.

Basically, the way I feel is this: Save or suck is the GM being clever, fair, and appropriately challenging. It's a way to introduce a serious challenge that doesn't end either with total victory or you have to rip up your character sheet and start over. It's scary and adds tension without automatically inflicting post-combat healing. It's a way to inflict damage that makes the game better but doesn't take your character out for weeks of healing or piles of healing spell castings.

Which is better - a magic spell which causes your brain to shut down and you go to sleep, unable to easily be awakened, right in the middle of a fight? Or getting hit with 3-4d damage to the skull and going down with a severe head injury? Even just from a "fix it later" perspective, the first is better.

I've gotten the most complaints from players when hit with something that neutralizes or weakens their characters, especially if they perceive the resistance as "too low" or the effects as too steep.

Madness spells? Will-2 save or for only 6 power you're out of the fight.

Paralytic attack by undead? Fail that HT roll, and you're unable to move and helpless.

Punch to the face? Blow that knockdown roll badly enough and you're out like a light.

Grappling? One blown defense and the foe has your sword arm and you're in a very bad way.

I get it. It feels terribly to get one-shotted. It's less fun to be a swordsman with a grappled arm. It sucks to blow a roll versus fear and your brave fighter flees in terror. Or to roll the dice and they tell you, from now on you are a spectator in this fight.

It sucks more if you don't even get to defend. A critical spell roll. A grapple from behind. A net that enmeshes you while you sleep.

The alternative for the GM, though, is powers that end the fight for the victim must kill the victim, or they're just another way to ablate off HP and then kill the victim.

Game design wise, the alternatives aren't better. They are either "fights aren't really dangerous unless your HP are low" or "fights end with you a victor or a ghost." Save or suck is a player-friendly alternative to having everything just do damage and having more danger mean more damage. They are a way to make a challenge come alive even when your pool of defenses and resources and HP are still pretty high. This doesn't mean all implementations are perfect. This doesn't mean that "death with no saving throw" is a good idea. And it sure doesn't mean that it's fun to get put to sleep, or turned to stone, or dropped in a single blow.

But the alternatives to "Touch causes paralysis" or "The poison does 1d + the helpless shakes" and "Blow a parry and he grappled my sword arm" are things like "Touch causes enough damage to potentially take you out" and "The poison do 1d + even more d" and "Blow a parry and he cut off my sword arm." Maybe instead of the monster grappling you from behind, it just stabs you in the gaps in your armor and potentially kills you. Maybe instead of maxing out a Sleep spell the wizard maxes out an area damage spell, and sculpts his tactics around just inflicting maximal damage.

So does Save or Suck suck? I don't think so. It's part of the challenge, without making the challenge all about damage. It's just a matter of seeing it for what it is, and what it's preventing the game from being.


  1. Mostly I think "Save or Suck" is perceived as problematic because it (by design) means that you sit out for a period of time. When you're Face-to-Face and yakkin' with your friends, perhaps that's not an issue. But being out of the fight while online during a fairly slow combat evolution (ten or fifteen minutes between turns isn't uncommon in some games I've played) means that you're basically surfing the web for an hour. It's the agency reduction that's the issue.

    In D&D things go so quickly this isn't an issue (and a -4 to hit or Disadvantage is debilitating but not crippling, mostly, due to the flat 1d20 distribution), but with GURPS, I perceive it can be.

    1. "Mostly I think "Save or Suck" is perceived as problematic because it (by design) means that you sit out for a period of time."

      That's true, but like I said, there are two alternative:

      - challenges can never remove you from play.

      - challenges must be cumulative ablation of your HP until you die.

      I don't see an alternative, personally. I think it's better to change the perspective - games sometimes have times when you just sit there - than say that games must not have the threat your abilities being reduced because you lose agency if that happens.

  2. Oh, they suck. But not as much as dying.
    Mo was out for half of the last 2 combats; one due to "non-save or suck" roll, a failed HT roll to stay conscious at -10HP after soaking up two 4d+1 club swings. Previously he was out after being grappled by a pentanther, but that wasn't as horrible (in my mind) because at least he kept one cat and a monkey out of the fight until Angus could kill them.
    Hjallmar was upset when he got the vapors from a Fright Check, but really, what's the diff between that and if the harpy dropped a turdbomb or a rock on his skull and knocked him out? Was that better or worse than when the arachno-assassin killed him? I bet he wishes they had Fear spells and he failed, during that fight.
    We hate feeling helpless while our buddies are in danger. But if we're going to enjoy the benefits of the GURPS killacious combat system- as in Mo cracking apes to the skull and one shotting them, we have to be on the other side as well. And a Madness spell or a tackle that lets you live through the fight is somewhat of a boon.

  3. Hjalmarr definitely preferred fainting from the Harpy's cry to the other alternative of death; he can conclusively say that now that he's back from the dead. I have no problem with these from a mechanical standpoint at all. It sucks when it happens from a certain standpoint, but it's better than a one-shot kill. Importantly, they're still fun even if it sucks for the character in that one combat session, and they're often memorable--Hjalmarr will always have his "vapors" moment, and it's funny as hell for the players to recount. I think the important part is that having a save means they're not unfair (although who said fighting magical beings more powerful than ordinary humans is fair?). The fight against Rangle Grot was very exciting on account of the fact that Hjalmarr was brainwashed as part of a save or suck effect. It could have resulted in various character deaths--which is what made it tense and memorable (and since they didn't die, that was really cool in the end). I'm not saying the group is ecstatic about facing that again, but it could have been a save or die death ray. That really sucks.

    1. Death Ray, no save!

      I really did mean it wasn't a specific criticism of people. You guys as a group haven't given me a hard time over save-or-suck. Some of the group gives me a hard time over mechanics of save-or-suck spells, actions, etc. but equally do the same over other mechanics they feel aren't fun or are lacking or both. The worst complain about the Madness spell is that it is resisted by Will-2, not that it's a one-shot fight ending spell.

      But still, there is always this "don't take away someone's ability to act, that's not fair" idea I run into. I wanted to spell out what I see is the alternative - if you can't have "suck" as a result, then you really only have "damage until dead" . . . unless you have no consequences at all.

  4. I think you use the term correctly, but you are in a different gaming place than the folks who dislike 'save or suck.'

    If there is a significant chance your PC will get killed or incapacitated as part of an adventure (as is the clearly case in your games) stuff like being stuck to the roof with evil maple syrup or temporarily transformed into a sweet potato casserole is, relatively, less of a hazard than having your skull smashed open.

    However, a nontrivial chunk of gamers, probably even a plurality, play games where the danger level is much lower. So, usually they get to act each round ... unless they get hit with save or suck.

    If all the guns are bb guns, tasers are relatively much more effective.

  5. There is always the option of ablating resources other than HP: save, or get a global -5 penalty to everything. One of those sucks, but for some DF abilities, you could stack 3 of them before you are completely useless. I think the real downside is the 'time out' watching other people play. Suck has its place, but it bears watching to make sure everyone is still having fun.

    1. I suppose - but how is that different from just nerfing things by saying there is no Save vs. Suck? "Save or suffer a moderate penalty!" is a weaker threat, which is a step towards "less challenging."

      However, if you couple that with lethal threats, it's a multiplier. Perhaps perversely, it makes you "suck" less but more likely to actually lose HP and die. Especially in GURPS! Part of the reason Hjalmarr died when he did was a fear effect weakening him. In retrospect, I bet he wished he was just paralyzed and ignored than subjected to a fear-based global penalty and then getting cut down . . .

  6. Very insightful. I like this alot.

  7. I think the key consideration from the GM's side is to vary your save or suck threats, so different players are faced with the potential penalty. If the warriors are always getting dropped by bad Will save or sucks, but the mages and clerics never see any HT based ones, some grousing is going to occur. And if the same player has to spend several gaming sessions doing nothing, especially in a row, its time to spread the love a bit. It doesnt have to be a threat to just ONE person, after all.

    1. That's good advice. Yeah, vary it up and spread it around.


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